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The French revolution and Europe - its echoes, its influence, its impact

34 Agora
The French Revolution and Europe – Its
Echoes, Its Inuence, Its Impact1
The French Revolution had a profound impact on the lives of all people in Europe.
Dr Darius von Güttner, The University of Melbourne
34 Agora
The French Revolution represented one of the most
intense and extended political, social and economic
crises Europe has ever known. The ripple eect of
the events in Paris sent waves across the European
continent. From northern Scandinavia to the shores
of the Mediterranean Sea and from the environs of
Muscovy to the Atlantic coast of Portugal, these waves
brought the ideals of the Rights of Man, Liberty and
Equality. In the last two decades of the eighteenth
century it was apparent to many that Europe was
ready to embark on some form of fundamental change;
however, it was not evident that the Continent was
on the brink of a revolution which would trigger a
recurring wave of revolutions until 1871. Once the ‘rst
daughter of the Church,’ France was now to be the
mother of Europe’s rst modern revolution.
The inuence of a nation that...has reduced the art of
living to the simple notions of liberty and equality…
the inuence of such a nation will undoubtedly
conquer the whole of Europe for Truth, Moderation
and Justice, not immediately perhaps, not in a single
day…[but] some day (Count de Mirabeau in the
National Assembly).2
Europe at the brink of the French Revolution was ruled
by monarchs who claimed absolute power over their
realms and subjects. Absolute monarchs, in theory,
weren’t required to engage in any form of consultation
with their subjects and could impose their ideas at
will. However, this assumption was purely theoretical
because any crowned head in Europe knew (or should
have known) that their position remained secure
only so far as their policies were implemented with
the endorsement of various interest groups within
their realms. As the eighteenth century progressed,
the claim of kings to rule by divine right seemed to get
weaker by the decade – its foundations slowly chipped
away by the ‘corrupting ideas’ of the Enlightenment.
The ruler of Russia, Catherine II, is said to have
remarked that ‘one could protect a throne with
bayonets, but one could not sit on them for too long.’
There is no consensus among historians about the
causes of the revolution, but a broad acknowledgement
exists of the complex nature of the tensions and
problems experienced by the society clinging to the
established order. These pressures became apparent
when an unfolding crisis, originating in the opposition
to change, brought them to the surface.
Agora 35
The Prelude
The long-established social, political and
economic foundations of the entrenched
systems of privilege, hierarchy and
tradition were challenged throughout
the eighteenth century. In 1774 a new
king, Louis XVI, ascended to the throne
of France and he soon recognised the
need for reform to ensure the prosperity
of his people.
For centuries, and denitely during the
reign of Louis XIV (1643–1715) – known
as the Sun King – France held a dominant
position in European politics. For more
than fty years Louis XIV personally
ruled France, providing the rest of
Europe with an example of an absolutist
style of government. Maintaining that
status caused a permanent decit in
the royal nances, in particular because
of an increasingly costly rivalry with
Britain. While Britain’s fast-growing
economy allowed it to concentrate on
building its colonial empire, France’s
overseas expansion always came second
to competition with other European
states on the Continent, such as Austria
and Prussia, Britain’s ally.
France was badly aected by a series of
foreign wars. The rst of these was the
War of Austrian Succession (1740–48),
which was fought over the right of
Maria Theresa of Austria, the daughter
of Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI
(1685–1740), to succeed her father as
ruler of all realms of the Habsburg
dynasty. Second was the eighteenth
century’s most extensive conict, the
Seven Years’ War (1756–63), which was
also known as the French and Indian
War as ghting between Britain and
France took place on the American and
Canadian frontiers and in India. In the
Treaty of Paris, which ended the Seven
Years’ War in 1763, France acknowledged
the loss of all of its territory on the North
American mainland and the Indian
subcontinent, and Britain emerged
as the dominant European colonial
power. These territorial concessions
signalled that the French monarchs
were unable to cope with the challenges
posed by the growth of Prussia and the
British overseas empire. Another sign
of France’s decreasing international
inuence was its inability, just prior to
Louis XVI’s accession in 1774, to prevent
the annexation of territories belonging
to Poland, one of its traditional
allies, by Prussia, Austria and Russia.
Paradoxically, the Partitions of Poland
set o the chain of revolutionary events
in central Europe that closely mirrored
the French experience.
At the beginning of Louis XVI’s reign,
France attempted to recover its pride
from these foreign policy defeats by
supporting Britain’s American colonies
in their war for independence. In the
1776 Declaration of Independence,
delegates from the thirteen British
colonies in North America renounced
British sovereignty and outlined the
moral rationale for their decision
together with a list of grievances against
King George III. The authors of the
declaration were inuenced by the ideas
of the Enlightenment; in particular
the theories of English thinker John
Locke and French philosophe Jean-
Jacques Rousseau. In a clear break from
the past, the colonists declared ‘that
all men are created equal’ and were
‘endowed by their Creator with certain
unalienable Rights.’ They declared
these rights to be ‘Life, Liberty and the
pursuit of Happiness.’ In deance of
the divine right of kings, the American
colonists argued that governments
derive their powers from ‘the consent
of the governed,’ who have the right
to abolish them when ‘any form of
government becomes destructive.’ The
ideals proclaimed in the Declaration
of Independence and the subsequent
development of the Constitution of
the United States of America (ratied
in 1788) had a profound impact in
undermining the authority of the ancien
régimes of Europe.3
In 1783 France hosted the peace
conference at which Britain conceded
the colonies’ independence. Britain
lost its thirteen colonies, but while
France won a propaganda victory over
Britain, its nancial losses were huge.
This diplomatic success brought no
tangible rewards for France and its
costs added to the growing pressure for
reform of France’s scal system. By 1787
these demands precipitated a political
crisis when the Assembly of Notables,
convened by Louis XVI, refused to
endorse his scal reform package without
major concessions from the monarchy.
The political crisis arose because
the French monarchy lacked a viable
mechanism of negotiating tax rises with
its subjects. Under the absolute rule of
the Bourbon dynasty, the only national
OPPOSIT E: Execut ion of Louis
XVI (engraving).
1 This article is based on
the ideas expressed in the
series of presentations
made at the History
Teachers’ Association
of Victoria’s Annual
Conference (July 2015)
and in Darius von
Güttner, The French
Revolution, Nelson
Modern History
(Melbourne: Nelson
Cengage, 2015).
2 Count de Mirabeau,
‘Speech in the National
Assembly,’ 25 August
1790, Gazette nationale,
ou, Le moniteur universel
238, 26 August 1790.
3 See, for example, David
Armitage, The Declaration
of Independence : A Global
History (Cambridge:
Harvard University Press,
36 Agora
representative body was the Estates-
General. Originating in the fourteenth
century, the Estates-General formed a
consultative assembly of the Kingdom of
France and comprised the three estates
of the realm: the clergy, the nobility and
the commoners. During a meeting of
the Estates-General the three estates
deliberated in three separate chambers
and independently of each other. The
Estates-General never became an
institution to keep the king in check
and never assumed a role similar to the
English parliament. Kings of France
summoned the Estates-General only
in times of crisis, and some did not call
them at all.
Deputies representing each of the three
estates were elected by the members
of the estate to which they belonged.
Their election was accompanied by the
drawing up of lists of grievances (cahiers
de doléances) at meetings of adult males
who elected the deputies. Traditionally,
the king would ask the Estates-General
to approve increases in taxes and, in
return, pledged to deal with the issues
presented in the lists of grievances. The
Estates-General of 1614 ended in asco
and demonstrated how dicult it was to
reach consensus between estates when
each of them staunchly defended their
rights and showed no inclination for
compromise. After this experience, the
Estates-General were not summoned
until the fateful decision of Louis XVI to
call a meeting for May 1789.
In the absence of regular sessions of the
Estates-General, their role was largely
carried out by France’s highest law
courts, the parlements. In the decades
before the revolution, the parlements had
obstructed many reforms because the
right of remonstrance allowed them to
hold royal authority in check. In the nal
years of the scal crisis, the parlements
refused to agree to the king’s reforms of
the taxation system, arguing that only
the Estates-General could consent to it
on behalf of the whole nation. Members
of the parlements perhaps assumed that
in the event of the convocation of the
Estates-General, they would play a key
When in September 1788 Louis XVI
announced that he would summon the
Estates-General, no-one, including the
king, knew exactly how it should be
assembled. On 23 September 1788 the
Parlement of Paris declared that the
Estates-General needed to be organised
as they were for their last meeting
in 1614. In particular, the deputies of
the three estates were to sit and vote
in separate chambers. Nonetheless,
Jacques Necker, the reform-minded
minister of Louis XVI, persuaded the
king to:
allow the number of deputies of the
third estate to equal the number of the
nobility and clergy combined;
permit the third estate to elect
deputies from the privileged orders to
represent the commoners; and
set the number of deputies to at least
LEFT: Ceremonial cost umes
of the thr ee orders of
the Estate s General: the
clergy, the nob ility and the
commoners. (Bibliothèque
nationa le de France).
Agora 37
In an unprecedented break with
tradition, the king also promised not to
impose any tax without the consent of
the Estates-General. These innovations
ensured that the outcome of the 1789
elections would be very dierent from
those of 1614.
The Enlightenment
France in 1789 was very dierent to
France in 1614. The same can also be
said of the rest of Europe. European
monarchies of the eighteenth century
can be characterised as rural societies.
Across the Continent, most of the
peasants survived by subsistence
farming and their standard of living
was dependent on harvest yields and
weather: crop failure and bad weather
meant hunger.
Many would object to any notion of
homogeneity applied to the European
peoples in the eighteenth century.
However, the reality of their experience
indicates that they had much more in
common than previously thought. As
the eighteenth century progressed,
a range of new ideas emerged that
challenged traditional ideas about how
society should be organised. These
ideas were often linked to a series
of interrelated economic, social and
cultural changes that were undermining
the institutional foundations of the
European ancien regimes, which were
based on corporate privilege and the
authority of the Church. These new
ideas, which coincided with extended
and gradual economic and political
change, are referred to by historians as
the Enlightenment.
The term ‘Enlightenment’ became
popular and inuential among educated
elites to describe the times in which
they lived – a time of great intellectual
turmoil characterised by hope for human
progress. Each European nation had
its own particular term to describe the
phenomenon; each term alluded to
‘letting light upon an object to reveal its
features.’ In Germany it was called the
Aufklärung, in Poland Oświecenie and in
Italy it was known as the Illuminismo.
The French term le Siècle des lumières
means much the same as the English
phrase ‘the Age of Enlightenment.’
This intellectual movement challenged
established forms of society, politics
and religion by insisting that the world
should be understood using reason and
logic rather than religion, tradition and
superstition. By the 1770s, Paris had
become the centre of the Enlightenment.
The clever, witty, often satirical and
daring writings of the philosophes
spread far and wide on the wave of a
growing reading public and the increased
aordability of printed text. Many read
these writings in the original French
as it was the language of the educated
elites across Europe. Order, religious
tolerance, rational thought, criticism
and human progress became the key
enlightened ideas propagated by the
critical thinkers, or philosophes, of the
The French word philosophe means
‘philosopher,’ but in the context of the
Enlightenment it was used to denote
intellectuals, writers and thinkers who
critically scrutinised the institutions,
laws and society in general, often
challenging established conventions
in religion and forms of behaviour. The
philosophes’ approach was empirical
– that is, based on evidence and
experience – and sceptical because they
questioned established knowledge and
examined facts, opinions and beliefs.
The writings of the philosophes covered
many topics, including agricultural
techniques, printing, draining swamps,
metalworking and the organisation
of society. They argued and disagreed
on many of the questions debated,
they changed their opinions and their
intellectual debate was also carried on
by others—many novelists, journalists,
social thinkers, scientists and even
pornographers thrived on the ideas of
freedom, pushing the boundaries of what
was permissible and acceptable.
Among the most inuential of the
French philosophes were Baron de
Montesquieu, Denis Diderot, Voltaire
and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The writings
of these key thinkers – although they
disagreed on many points – created
a new language to discuss and dene
new understandings about how society
should be ruled and organised. They
also shaped the values and beliefs of
others across Europe. For example, by
the 1780s the works of Voltaire, Diderot,
Rousseau and Montesquieu were
available in Polish. In 1772 Rousseau
published his own advice on the
reform of the government of Poland,
Considérations sur le gouvernement de
Pologne, and applied the ideas of the
social contract to constitutional reform
38 Agora
in France’s traditional ally in the east of
the Continent.
In the 20 years which followed
Rousseau’s Considérations, Poland
experienced its own Enlightenment,
strongly inuenced by its western
European counterparts. Following
the lead of their French contemporary
Marquis de Lafayette, many Polish
nobles fought in the American War of
Independence in support of the rebels.
Among them were Tadeusz Kościuszko
(1746–1817), an engineer and advocate
for human rights, and Kazmierz
Pułaski (1745–1779), ‘the father of the
American cavalry.’ Kościuszko typied
an enlightened noble and he returned to
Poland enthused by the American spirit;
his heroic anti-absolutist stance inspired
explorer Sir Paul Strzelecki (1797–1883)
to name the highest peak on mainland
Australia in Kościuszko’s honour.
The spread of Enlightenment ideals
aected other areas of public thought
across the Continent. The Polish
thinker Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz
(1758–1841) argued for the equality of
all estates of the realm. He suggested
that only unied representation of all
the estates could lead to an increase in
the country’s strength and prosperity.
Niemcewicz remarked that it was
not George Washington or Benjamin
Franklin’s ancestors that made them
known throughout the world, but the
fact that they contributed to America’s
liberty and independence. The Polish
Constitution of 1791, the rst written
constitution in Europe, balanced the
sovereignty of the nation (inspired by
Rousseau) with the separation of powers
(argued for by Montesquieu) according
to historian Richard Butterwick.4 The
opening phrase of this constitution
stated that the king of Poland was king
by the ‘grace of God and the will of
the nation’ – a declaration that caused
much displeasure among the rulers of
neighbouring absolutist monarchies.5
‘I will ght Jacobinism in Poland, and I
will beat it,’ Catherine the Great wrote in
1792. She might have been an admirer of
Voltaire and a correspondent of Diderot
but she was true to her word – the Polish
Constitution did not survive the Second
Partition in 1793.6
In the view of historian Robert Palmer,
both the French and Polish revolutions
began with the nobility’s opposition
to royal absolutism and ministerial
despotism; both revolutions reached a
life-and-death crisis with wars in 1792.7
Similarities between both are striking –
‘Considering where the people of Poland
began,’ wrote Camille Desmoulins,
‘they have made relatively as great a leap
toward liberty as we have.’ The French
were also in awe of the Americans.
The American Spirit
Parisians were greatly interested in the
revolt of the American colonies against
Britain, especially after the American
agent Silas Deane arrived in France to
lobby the French for aid. Deane was
involved in recruiting ocers and
engineers and sourcing supplies to
support the rebellion. The rst foreign
volunteers, writes historian Adam
Zamoyski, were French. Ocially,
France maintained its neutrality, but
some French ocers enlisted with the
Americans.8 Perhaps the best example
is Marquis de Lafayette (1757–1834)
who had no hope of gaining meaningful
military experience as a soldier in
peacetime. For historian Simon Schama,
Lafayette’s American experiences
not only exposed him to the ideals of
‘Liberty, Equality and the pursuit of
Happiness,’ but also positively instilled
the ‘spirit of America’ in his psyche.
Lafayette and other returning European
volunteers who had served in America
spread the ideas of liberty and popular
For Zamoyski, the American revolt
was seen by Europeans as a ‘dramatic
condemnation of the evils of Europe’
and echoes an earlier assessment by
historian Alexis de Tocqueville who
LEFT: Marquis de Lafayette
(Joseph-Désiré Cour t, 1834) .
4 Richard Butterwick, The
Polish Revolution and the
Catholic Church, 1788–
1792 (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2012);
Richard Butterwick, ed.,
The Polish-Lithuanian
Monarchy in European
Context c. 1500–1795
Hampshire: Palgrave,
2001), especially Chapter
5 Simon Dixon, Catherine
the Great (London:
Harper Collins, 2009),
6 See Adam Zamoyski,
The Last King of Poland
(London: Cape, 1992),
354–356; Jerzy Lukowski,
The European Nobility in
the Eighteenth Century,
European Culture and
Society (Houndsmills,
Hampshire: Palgrave
Macmillan, 2003).
7 Robert R. Palmer, The
Age of the Democratic
Revolution A Political
History of Europe and
America, 1760–1800,
Princeton Classics
(Princeton: Princeton
University Press, 2014),
especially Chapter 13.
8 Adam Zamoyski,
Phantom Terror : The
Threat of Revolution and
the Repression of Liberty,
1789–1848 (London:
William Collins, 2014).
9 Simon Schama, Citizens:
A Chronicle of the French
Revolution (London:
Penguin, 1989), 24–41.
10 Adam Z amoyski,
Holy Madness:
Romantics, Patriots and
Revolutionaries 1776–1871
(London: Weidenfeld &
Nicolson, 1999), 20–28.
Agora 39
Agora 39
wrote in 1835 that the Americans were
carrying out what the philosophes wrote
about.10 Indeed, Tocqueville suggests
a direct link between the ideas of the
philosophes and the revolutionary
action. The American rebellion
demonstrated to the world that there
was an alternative to the ancien régime
and, even more signicantly, it was
within reach.
In the late 1780s it was not apparent
to Louis XVI and his government that
the monarchy faced its fatal crisis. A
series of reforms aimed at making the
French economy more productive had
been enacted, but royal ministers had
come to realise that partial reform
was inadequate and they had begun to
propose sweeping reforms of the scal
system. Two decades earlier, Jacques
Turgot tried to open up France’s
economy by pursuing a number of free-
market policies. Later, Jacques Necker
tried to save money by abolishing some
506 venal oces, with a saving of about
2.5 million livres a year, and by improving
tax collection. The fact that so many
reforms were undertaken exposed the
fundamental problems undermining
the French monarchy and pointed to
the erosion of many long-established
customs and institutions.
With each of these attempts at reform
threatening the privileges of various
interest groups, those who stood to lose
defended themselves by challenging
the king’s right to change laws and
alter customs protected by tradition.
Historians with dierent perspectives,
such as Peter McPhee, François Furet
and William Doyle, agree that the
conicts which preceded the revolution
were not simply a by-product of an
outdated and inecient structure
of government but – as in the rest of
Europe—they were deeply rooted in
France’s complex, hierarchical social
structure.11 When the steadily worsening
nancial position forced Louis XVI to
allow his subjects to express their views,
the king learnt that neither the nobles
nor the commoners were prepared to
accept changes from above without
questioning them.
Yet, in the opinion of Simon Schama,
the events of the Assembly of Notables
(1787) are evidence that the privileged
orders were willing to sacrice their own
rights because they had a:
…shared sense of the historical
moment that prompted their display
of patriotic altruism. Allotted the role
of a dumb chorus, they suddenly found
that, individually and collectively, they
had a powerful voice – and that France
was paying attention. This abrupt self-
discovery of politics was intoxicating
and there are signs that though they
are usually dismissed as the tail end of
the old regime, with respect to political
self-consciousness the Notables were
the rst revolutionaries.12
European Echoes
After a suspension of payments to all
debtors in August 1788 by the almost
bankrupt French government and
Louis XVI’s decision to convoke the
Estates-General, the electoral process
dominated French politics. France was
not alone in facing domestic issues
and increased calls for a representative
form of government. In the Austrian
Netherlands, the estates of the provinces
of Brabant and Hainault met in
November 1788 and refused to pay taxes
to the Austrian crown. The reasons for
their rebellion against Emperor Joseph II
were deeply rooted in the estates’
opposition to Joseph’s religious and
political reforms. Years before France
embarked on its wholesale restructure
of the state and the Church, the emperor
decreed the suppression of seminaries,
the abolition of pilgrimages, the
dissolution of contemplative religious
orders and the imposition of taxation on
the church’s property.
The timing of the crisis in the Austrian
Netherlands coincided with the
meeting of the second Assembly of
Notables in Versailles, which were at
the time working out the agenda for
the Estates-General. The State Council
of the Austrian Netherlands’ rejection
of the reforms forced by the emperor
precipitated an Austrian invasion in
June 1789. Also in June 1789 a deant
third estate took the unifying Tennis
Court Oath and set in motion the chain
of irreversible events which propelled
the revolution in France towards a
constitutional monarchy.13
In the backdrop of the deance of
established authority in France and
the Austrian Netherlands, the Polish
parliament (Seym) met in October
1788. Overcoming the opposition of
some of its Russophile members, its
11 Peter McPhee,
Robespierre: A
Revolutionary Life
(New Haven, CT: Yale
University Press, 2012);
Peter McPhee, The French
Revolution, 1789–1799
(Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2002);
Peter McPhee, Living
the French Revolution,
1789–1799 (New York:
Palgrave Macmillan,
2006); François Furet,
The French Revolution,
1770-1814 (Oxford:
Blackwell, 1996); William
Doyle, The Oxford History
of the French Revolution,
2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 2002).
12 Schama, Citizens: A
Chronicle of the French
Revolution, 144.
13 Bernard A. Cook, Belgium:
A History, Studies in
Modern European
History (Book 50) (New
York: Peter Lang, 2002),
40 Agora
deputies proceeded to create a national
professional army in the midst of the talk
of constitutional reform. This top-down
revolution was led by the Anglophile
King Stanisław August (1732–1798) and
a group of intellectuals fascinated with
the British and American constitutional
models. Their eorts culminated in
the 1791 constitution, designed to
strengthen Poland against foreign
interference and abolishing the right
of every individual nobleman to block
Across the English Channel, the early
stages of the French Revolution were
met with widespread enthusiasm.
The predominant understanding of
the events was that the French were
rejecting absolutism and were on the
path towards a liberal constitution
based on the British model. Interest in
the French reform was mostly among
those who argued for domestic electoral
and surage reforms. A Presbyterian
preacher Richard Price (1723–1791)
saw the revolution in France as the
fullment of a divine plan for humanity.
In November 1789, in a sermon
commemorating England’s Glorious
Revolution of 1688, Price exclaimed:
Behold all the friends of freedom…
behold the light you have struck out,
after setting America free, reected
to France and there kindled into a
blaze that lays despotism in ashes and
warms and illuminates Europe. I see
the ardour for liberty catching and
spreading;...the dominion of kings
changed for the dominion of laws,
and the dominion of priests giving
way to the dominion of reason and
But soon, the revolution was also met
with criticism. In November 1790
Edmund Burke (1729–1797), a member
of the British House of Commons,
published his Reections on the Revolution
in France. Burke’s pamphlet was critical
of the revolution and was an immediate
bestseller in Britain. Burke observed
that political tradition was a better
foundation for reform of a political
system than the abstract ideas espoused
by the National Assembly. ‘You began
ill,’ he warned the French, ‘because
you began by despising everything
that belonged to you. You set up your
trade without a capital.’ Burke, now
recognised as the philosophical founder
of conservatism, argued that limiting
the king’s power would ultimately result
in abolition of the monarchy and he
anticipated that the nationalisation of
the property of the Church would lead
to a wholesale change in the property
structures in France. Burke recognised
that the crisis was not contained to ‘the
aairs of France alone, but of all Europe,
perhaps of more than Europe.’15 His
words were true if not prophetic.
Burke’s rebuttal of Price ignited a
pamphlet war in Britain known as the
Revolution Controversy. One of the
caricatures by James Gillray, Smelling
Out a Rat; or The Atheistical-Revolutionist
Disturbed in his Midnight ‘Calculations’
(1790), captured the hilarity of the
debate. It depicted Richard Price writing
LEFT: Smelling Out a R at; or
The Atheist ical-Revolutionis t
Dist urbed in his Mi dnight
‘Calculations’ (James Gi llray,
1790). (Librar y of Congress).
14 Adam Zamoyski, Poland’s
Parliamentary Tradition
(Warszawa: Chancellery
of the Sejm, 1999).
15 Edmund Burke,
Reections on the
Revolution in France
Penguin, 1968), 92.
Agora 41
a ctional work, On the Benets of Anarchy
Regicide Atheism, beneath a picture of the
execution of Charles I of England in 1649
when England was declared a republic.
The British reading public openly
debated the nature of political rights
– understanding them as one of the
inalienable rights of all men. The
publication in 1791 of the rst instalment
of Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man proved
to be particularly inuential. Among
the key ideals of the French Revolution,
Paine defended the idea of a written
constitution and the electoral system
based on universal male surage. In
the following year Paine published a
more radical continuation of his treatise
in which he criticised the monarchy
and nobility and called for radical
social justice reforms.16 Paine’s works
sold astonishingly well. However, the
execution of Louis XVI in 1793 led
most British radicals to recant their
admiration for the French Revolution
with loud insistence that they merely
argued for a democratic reform of the
House of Commons and not a civil war.
A Military Conict
King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette
looked to war as a way of involving
European powers in the aairs of France.
Louis appointed a new ministry drawn
from the pro-war faction. On 10 March
1792 Jean-Marie Roland was appointed
minister of home aairs and Charles-
François Dumouriez minister of foreign
aairs. The French Assembly demanded
that Austria cease protecting escaped
French nobles (émigrés). When this
ultimatum was rejected, Louis XVI
addressed the Assembly with a formal
request on 20 April 1792 to declare
war on Austria. The vote in favour
of the declaration of war was almost
unanimous. The declaration of war on
Austria started a series of revolutionary
wars that would last for the better part of
the next two decades, engulng almost
the whole Continent.
The war, which Louis XVI so readily
publicly encouraged in April 1792, was
marred by a series of French defeats
which turned the public against the
king. Within months Louis was deposed
(10 August 1792) and the monarchy in
France was abolished (20 September
1792). After the declaration of the
republic, the French enjoyed a series
of early successes in late 1792. French
troops annexed Savoy on 27 November
1792. In the north-east, French advances
were partly due to the withdrawal
of Prussian troops from the front as
Frederick William of Prussia shifted
them east in order to secure Prussian
participation in the Second Partition
of Poland and the seizing of the port
of Gdansk. Unopposed, the French
revolutionary armies progressed
eastwards with little resistance and
carried with them the principles of
liberty and equality in their pursuit of ‘a
crusade for universal liberty.’ In practical
terms, this meant introducing reforms
already in force in France: the abolition
RI GHT: Stormin g of the
Tuile ries Pala ce on 10 Augus t
1792 (Jea n Duplessis-B ertaux ,
16 Thomas Paine, Rights of
Man (Harmondsworth:
Penguin Books, 1984),
17 Doyle, The Oxford History
of the French Revolution,
42 Agora
42 Agora
of titles, feudal dues and the nobility –
all forms of privilege. Their mandate,
William Doyle observed, was: the name of peace, help, fraternity,
liberty, and equality, to assist all
peoples to establish ‘free and popular’
governments, with whom they would
then co-operate.17
However, the excitement of spreading
the principles of the revolution started
to evaporate as the tide of war turned
against France. On 18 March 1793 at
Neerwinden, the French army, led by
Charles Dumouriez, was defeated by
a coalition army, ending Dumouriez’s
invasion of the Austrian Netherlands.
As a result, the French army retreated
through Brussels on 24 March 1793.
The Austrians destroyed any hopes
of Belgian self-determination and
regained Belgium and the Rhineland,
and Spaniards entered France from the
south. Dumouriez, whose conviction in
the revolution was shaken by the judicial
murder of King Louis XVI on 21 January
1793, attempted to rally his troops to
march on Paris against the National
Convention and restore the constitution
of 1791 with the infant Louis XVII as king.
Unsuccessful, he defected to the enemy
on 5 April 1793, leaving the French armies
in disarray. The defection of Dumouriez,
a high-ranking military leader and hero
of the rst great victories at Valmy and
Jemappes, fuelled a factional struggle
within the political establishment of the
republic. The public increasingly feared
that the counter-revolution would attack
– not from outside France but from
within. The suspicion that there were
traitors working against the revolution
from within made measured political
debate extremely dicult.
In 1793 the French Revolution entered its
radical stage and Europe’s monarchies
were ready to act to counter any
revolutionary movement. However, the
threat of decisive foreign intervention in
France by Austria, Prussia and Russia did
not materialise. The French Revolution
was saved in a way by the preoccupation
of these three monarchies in crushing
the Polish Revolution. In the end,
Catherine the Great ordered her troops
into Poland and invited Prussia and
Austria to help themselves to a slice of
Polish territory, thus erasing Poland
from the political map of Europe in
October 1795.18 France, in the aftermath
of the overthrow of Robespierre on 28
July 1794, introduced a new constitution
(approved by the National Convention
on 22 August 1795) in which the
citizens’ rights were balanced by duties.
Dissatisfaction with this new order was
particularly strong in Paris and the last
mass rebellion of the revolutionary
period was suppressed by the army on
5 October 1795.
The revolution in France had a profound
impact on the lives of all peoples in
Europe. Its eects proved lasting and
France and Europe never really returned
to the conditions of the old order.
The principles of democracy, liberty,
merit, equality and sovereignty of the
people have been an enduring aspect
of the legacy of the French Revolution.
The revolution of 1789 opened over
a century of revolutionary upheavals
which culminated in the Russian
Revolution and the establishment of
Soviet Russia. The very ideas of rights,
citizenship, secular society, free speech,
merit, rule of law, popular sovereignty
and democracy in the Western world
were fundamentally shaped by the
tumultuous years of the French
Revolution. These ideas continue to
shape and drive events in the world
18 The share of the Polish
territory and population
was distributed as
follows: Prussia gained
some 20 per cent of the
territory and 23 per cent
of the population; the
respective gures for
Austria were 18 and 32
per cent; for Russia, 62
and 45 percent. Piotr
Stefan Wandycz, The
Price of Freedom: A History
of East Central Europe
From the Middle Ages to the
Present, 2nd ed. (London:
Routledge, 2001), 120.
‘The very ideas of rights, citizenship, secular society, free speech, merit,
rule of law, popular sovereignty and democracy in the Western world were
fundamentally shaped by the tumultuous years of the French Revolution.’
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